The Culinary Program at the Westbrook Teen Center teaches knife skills and life skills

Mac Waybright, culinary youth instructor at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, demonstrates how to hold a ladle to students Patrick Tracy and Rose Gilchrist. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

WESTBROOK — In the basement kitchen of the My Place Teen Center on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Chef Mac Waybright, the center’s youth culinary instructor, showed his three students how to prepare the turkey, chili, and cornbread meal they had just prepared.

The kids listened intently as Waybright explained visual cues, such as browned edges that let them know the cornbread muffins are done. He showed them how to neatly pry muffins out of the tin and how to scoop up chili neatly, without dripping, by quickly pressing the bottom of the heaped ladle into the chili before transferring it to the bowl.

Some of the warm muffins broke apart when the children tried to lift them. The scoop trick isn’t second nature yet either, so there was some spillage here and there.

But the students stayed focused and engaged, finishing the chili bowls with a sprinkle of shredded white cheddar. Minutes later, as a few dozen of their peers poured into the center’s dining room, the novice chefs were ready to serve them.

This year, as My Place Teen Center celebrates its 25th anniversary and has helped countless children from high-risk areas, the center’s restaurant job training program reaches its own five-year milestone. Donna Dwyer, executive director of My Place, estimates that 80 students have completed the center’s 10-week training program since its inception.

Rose Gilchrist, 19, delivers chili and cornbread to the dining room at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

The restaurant training prepares the children for jobs as a cook, waiter and host, if they are interested. But even those interns who don’t see themselves progressing in a culinary or hospitality career pick up valuable life lessons and develop workplace know-how that leave them more self-sufficient and better prepared to enter the adult world.


Providing free meals to young people in the area has always been a core task of the centre. “Plenty of free food is a great way for kids to get through our red doors,” explains Dwyer. “Most of these children come from environments where hunger is rampant and housing is an issue, along with some other traumatic issues in the home. If they weren’t eating this food here, they probably wouldn’t be eating anywhere else.”

Just over five years ago, Dwyer said the center decided the free meals could, in a way, double duty, if the students cooked, served and cleaned. “We thought we could do more than just feed kids, that we could actually integrate a lot of vocational skills and life skills into the child feeding part,” she said.

The center was able to raise approximately $200,000 to completely renovate the kitchen in the center’s building, the former United Methodist Church, including equipping it with professional slide-in refrigerators and a 10-burner electric stove with two ovens. .

Dwyer and her staff also hired a professional chef to run the program, which is offered four times a year to up to four students, the most number the small kitchen can comfortably accommodate.

“We needed a chef who really wanted to work with teenage kids, and that’s a special skill in itself,” Dwyer said. “And it’s not just making food, the chef is a mentor for children at risk.”

Mac Waybright, left, lifts a cornbread muffin from a pan with help from Patrick Tracy, as Ethan Cook and Rose Gilchrist look on. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

Waybright has been a professional chef for 30 years and a former high school culinary arts instructor in Tennessee. Waybright is the center’s third chef and has been leading the training program for nearly three years.

“He’s very patient with the kids and has resolved not to take any shortcuts,” Dwyer said. All downtown meals are made from scratch, from pasta and pizza dough to salad dressings, breads, and pastries—no low-calorie crowd pleasers like mac and cheese or chicken nuggets here.

Waybright said they aim to create meals that are healthy and nutritiously balanced, but also appeal to picky teen tastes. “Part of making sure kids are well fed is that the food has to taste really good, it can’t be bland,” he said.

Donna Dwyer is CEO of My Place Teen Center, which has been offering a restaurant job training program for five years. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

Because most of the center’s ingredients are donated by organizations like Wayside Food Programs and Cultivating Community, as well as farms like Bumble Root, “we make do with what we get,” Dwyer said. Some things are more popular with the kids than others: Swiss chard is a hard sell, but spinach is doing well and roasted Brussels sprouts with a bit of bacon in them have gained more fans every week this winter.

Waybright takes his young employees on three-hour sessions twice a week, teaching them basic kitchen skills such as knife skills, prep work, sanitation and setting up the mise-en-place in their workplaces. Kids who complete the program get a $100 gift card as an incentive, but Dwyer said the work is often its own reward.

“Most kids love to cook and love to be involved in making food,” Dwyer said.

At one particular session during the program, Waybright can guide the kids through the carving, pounding, dredging, and coating of chicken breasts for chicken parmesan, or show them how to make dressing for a Caesar salad. He even teaches them how to bake focaccia bread, “which is ridiculously easy,” Waybright said, “and it’s something the kids can do at home and show their parents how to make it.”


The workout does wonders for the kids’ self-confidence, Waybright said. He points to Patrick Tracy, a 13-year-old from Westbrook who had chopped up sweet potatoes and peppers for the turkey chili earlier in the day.

“Patrick loves the smells, the tactile sensation of preparing food, and he feels a great sense of accomplishment in taking these ingredients and creating something. That gives him a real sense of accomplishment,” said Waybright.

Patrick Tracy, 13, scoops cornbread batter into muffin tins in the kitchen at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

“When he learns something he gets excited, you can see that spark in his brain,” he continued. “It gives a very good feeling when you see a child learning something. And it leads to more curiosity.”

Partly due to the demanding lifestyle, Tracy does not see herself working in professional kitchens. Dwyer said some kids just get into the exercise program because it’s fun.

But his friend and fellow intern on the restaurant program, Ethan Cook, said he’s considering becoming a restaurant chef. “It’s fun to let people eat your food,” says 14-year-old Cook from Westbrook. “They ask for seconds, and I’m like, ‘Oh, they like my cooking, that’s good.'”

Ethan Cook, 14, sprinkles cheese over bowls of chili. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

“They’re really a part of making these meals, and they’re learning to take pride in what they’re making,” says Rhonda Green, one of the center’s adult volunteers.

“The kitchen here is a great place,” says Tom Heckel, another adult volunteer. “It smells good, you work shoulder to shoulder, the music is on and you make something tasty and nutritious. To be a part of that is a real boost to their confidence, and I think they get a lot out of it. They see that they can accomplish something meaningful, such as feeding their peers or getting a head start on a job.

While most of the program’s young interns seeking restaurant work get entry-level jobs at restaurant chains, Hannaford, or stores like Crumbl Cookies in Rock Row—where they are highly valued for their fundamental competence—a high-profile student like Niko Owen can join the kitchen from a place like The Frog & Turtle, Westbrook’s upscale gastropub.

Owen went through the center’s training program twice before starting at the restaurant in June. In late July, Frog & Turtle chef James Tranchemontagne presented him with a 10-inch Wusthof chef’s knife, officially declaring that Owen had earned his place on the kitchen staff.

Prep chef Niko Owen, 17, cuts leeks in the kitchen at Frog & Turtle Gastropub in Westbrook. Niko learned his culinary skills at My Place Teen Center. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

“Niko has a lot of natural ability,” said Tranchemontagne. “It’s not a charity thing here, he’s earned everything. This kid is amazing, works as hard as anyone and shows the will to learn. Everyone in the kitchen, he reminds us of ourselves at that age.”

“Most of what I’ve learned has come from the Teen Center,” says Owen, 17, of Westbrook. The young man has also shown enough creativity at Frog & Turtle to include some of his ideas for flatbreads or calzones as specials on the menu.


Before the restaurant job training program began, Tranchemontagne volunteered at My Place and occasionally taught cooking classes. He recalls a mind-boggling number of children who couldn’t even visually identify peppers or zucchini.

But while the program builds their culinary literacy, it also introduces children to healthy foods and eating habits. “(The program) gives those kids so many more life skills than I think the school system has given them. And they eat healthier than at school or at home,” Tranchemontagne said.

And the extensive kitchen lessons also ensure that the children are not too dependent on recipes as chefs. “You don’t learn to make one dish, you learn how to make hundreds of dishes with those basic skills,” Tranchemontagne said.

Rose Gilchrist, 19, scoops chili into bowls while Ethan Cook, 14, waits to sprinkle the bowls with cheese at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

“If you have that foundational foundation of organization and preparedness, then you can freestyle and not just have to stick to a recipe, you can have fun doing it,” said Waybright.

In the fall, My Place opened a second teen center in Biddeford at the former St. Andre’s Church, allowing them to begin serving youth in York County as well. The new location also has restaurant training.

“We’re always thinking about the kids — who they are now and who they’re going to be as adults,” Dwyer said. “We give them life and work skills so that in the future, as adults, they have the means to take care of themselves and never have to go hungry again.”

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The Culinary Program at the Westbrook Teen Center teaches knife skills and life skills

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